As if under some demonic contractual obligation, the people running Walt Disney Pictures seem to be balancing their apparent resurgence of mature animated films with live action bastardizations of their classic animated films under the pretense of modernizing them. After turning Alice In Wonderland into a generic Narnia rip-off with Tim Burton, screenwriter Linda Woolverton teams up with first-time director Robert Stromberg for a Wicked-like revision of Sleeping Beauty starring Maleficent as a tragic fallen antiheroine rather than the mistress of all evil who reveled in her wickedness. There are undeniably good concepts for a feminist retelling of the story: The betrayal of Maleficent by future king Stefan is shot and narratively framed to evoke a date-rape, Prince Philip expresses great reluctance at kissing an unconscious Aurora and ends up playing no part in the film’s resolution whatsoever, Aurora herself is only asleep for about ten in-universe minutes and takes on Philip’s role as the day’s saviour… Alas, good concepts are meaningless if they are not implemented adequately and, with the notable exception of Stefan’s betrayal, almost none of them are.
The problem is threefold. Firstly, whereas even Burton at his worst has always made visually interesting films, Robert Stromberg has neither vision nor any visual flair to speak of. An art director by training, he fills his shots with some of the ghastliest CGI creatures ever to populate a big-budget production and shoots most scenes devoid of them like a Lolita Lempicka perfume commercial – well-composed at best but inescapably fake. It doesn’t help that his action scenes, comprised mostly of medium-shot pans and close-ups, are edited with a haphazardness that’s almost embarrassing to watch. Secondly, the screenplay’s novel idea to have Maleficent keep an eye on her future victim, find herself gradually caring for her like a mother or a big sister and get them to eventually meet and bond is completely botched by the arbitrariness of the circumstances surrounding their first meeting, Princess Aurora’s lack of any personality traits beyond smiling vapidly at everything around her, and Stromberg & Woolverton’s insistence on turning the three fairies – the true heroines of the original film – into squealing brainless twits. After experiencing their embarrassingly dreadful attempts at comic relief for the fifth time, you might catch yourself pining for the days of Jar Jar Binks. The fact that they force such thespians as Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple (by far the best British actress of her generation) to give uniformly terrible performances makes the spectacle all the more painful to endure.
Thirdly and crucially, Angelina Jolie looks the part as the title character but much of her emotional delivery is off-key, in large part because she makes the fatal mistake of trying to emulate both Eleanor Audley’s performance from the original Disney classic and her animation. In this way, it embodies one of the fundamental mistakes behind Maleficent: Making it a revision of the 1959 Disney film rather than just the fairytale. Maleficent was entertaining and memorable precisely because the filmmakers and writers made great efforts to turn her into a personification of evil rather than a person. Her very name, derived from the latin words male (bad) and ficens (to do), is designed to mark her as evil. The idea that someone with that name could have ever been a benevolent fairy living in a peaceful magical utopia is preposterous. Had Woolverton thought of the stigma that might be associated with such a name and of perhaps making her someone who wanted to go against the role her culture had assigned to her only to embrace it after being profoundly hurt by the man she loved and trusted, there might have been room for moral complexity. That, however, would have required similar work on Stefan himself. While Sharlto Copley’s performance is the only salvageable one in the film, his villain remains aggravatingly one-dimensional despite the many opportunities given to humanize him – why not root his decision to betray Maleficent in a desire to avoid war without killing her and make his hunger for power an undercurrent that ended up corrupting him? The reasoning and feelings that might have come to play in his decision to send his own daughter to grow up away from him and ignorant of his existence are similarly unexamined. King Stefan is evil and only slightly more complex than the original Maleficent. If Woolverton’s idea of subversion is simply switching roles between hero and villain, then this film is about as subversive as a Bizarro World comic.
Instead of converting a classic fairytale into a thoughtful reflection on what drives people to hurt each other and how these human failings may be transcended, Woolverton and Stromberg turn it into an ugly commercial object whose squandering of ideas is matched only by its destitution of any sense of Wonder.